In the mid-1990s, the Iraqi intellectual Isam al-Khafaji published a brace of articles lamenting the decay of “Arab thought in a dismal age.” Al-Khafaji glumly surveyed the Arab cultural scene, which, though bubbling with vitality at the edges, was dominated by the stolid priesthood of the “ultra-nationalist state.” In country after country, and not just his native Iraq, the state had swallowed free expression whole, consigning the original thinkers to mental or physical exile. The complete identification of the nation with the state meant that the only consistently safe form of critique was anti-imperialism, directed against the West, Israel or both, and appearing in both secular and Islamist variants. The state itself was immovable, as if immune to historical forces. There was a pervasive sense that the Arab world was stuck.

For decades, the image of the Arab world in the West was also in suspended animation. Discredited Orientalist themes cropped up again and again in the finest newspapers and magazines. Arabs preferred paternalistic kings and presidents-for-life to participatory politics. Arabs blamed all their problems on Israel and the West. Arabs rooted their worldview uniquely in religion, particularly Islam, routinely cast by Western writers as stranded in the past. Arabs were, in effect, outside time. This set of ideas, too, found ultimate sanction in the policies of a powerful state — the United States.

The Arab revolts that began in December 2010 have immediate, material causes, but their deeper wellspring has been the determination of Arab peoples to reclaim their historical agency from both the condescension of outsiders and the mind-numbing repression of Arab rulers. They have proved the Orientalists wrong and lifted the gloom of al-Khafaji’s analysis.

Responding to the Iraq War

In a way, these dramatic, astonishingly brave rebellions drew inspiration from the fall of Saddam Hussein, the world-historical war criminal to whose ouster al-Khafaji and his fellow oppositionists devoted their political lives. The relation is not, as neoconservatives would have it, that the US-led invasion of Iraq initiated a democratic domino effect, and it is not, as Vice President Joe Biden would have it, that Arabs consider the post-invasion political system in Iraq worthy of emulation. The link is rather that the first large demonstrations explicitly to demand the downfall of a US-allied Arab dictator were held to protest the war to remove Saddam. In Cairo on March 20, 2003, Tahrir Square was briefly occupied by some 3,000 anti-war protesters — young, old, secular, Islamist — who shouted the imperative “Irhal! Leave!” at Hosni Mubarak. The memory of that day pushed its veterans to retake the square in January 2011, when they had hundreds of thousands of Egyptians behind them, chanting the same, soon-to-be-legendary slogan.

It is important to be precise about popular Arab opposition to the Iraq war. Except at the fringes, the sentiment did not flow from support for Saddam Hussein, but from the premonition — proven all too correct — that Iraqi civilians would bear the brunt of the war’s devastation. Iraqis shared a deep foreboding about the invasion. Many Iraqi exiles, it is true, clambered aboard the invading US tanks, but for many others, like al-Khafaji, the war was an immense tragedy, a criminal conspiracy of circumstances to be regarded at the very best with grim resignation. As for the virtue of ridding Iraq of Saddam, Iraqis were as suspicious as other Arabs of the US-funded parties bidding to replace him. And those doubts, too, have been amply justified by subsequent events.

The lesson of the Iraq war, indeed, is that regime change by external intervention blocks aspirations for more democratic and humane political systems. The United States and its “coalition” did have ulterior motives. Many Iraqis did take up arms to foil the ambitions of Washington and its proxies. Those proxies did want to seize the country as a prize for themselves. Ordinary Iraqis did pay by far the war’s biggest price — and, off the front pages of the Western press, they continue to pay it. Arab regimes, of course, use these realities to manipulate the populations under their thumb and to strengthen the very logic of the “ultra-nationalist state” that Saddam once embodied.

The wholly indigenous groundswells in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are thus all the more startling and inspirational. Like the Cairo anti-war rally in 2003, they channeled the fury of average people at their rulers’ complicity in assaults upon the lives and livelihoods of fellow Arabs in Iraq (and in Palestine as well). The likes of Mubarak had long promulgated the notion that coziness with Washington was the best way to make Arab views known; the war exposed that line as a sordid conceit. But, more to the point, the uprisings are an emphatic rejection of the coercion and casuistry the regimes had relied upon to hold the masses in check. Keep quiet or go to jail; back the state or get branded as a traitor; salute the dictator or drown in the deluge. The revolts are living, breathing proof that the choices offered by the powerful are not the only choices.

Egypt and Tunisia

Tunisia and Egypt remain the crucial theaters of the Arab uprisings, Egypt as the most populous Arab state and Tunisia as the place where revolt has edged closest to revolution. In Tunisia, in fact, there were two homegrown regime changes in 2011, one of which forced the ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to decamp and the other of which expelled a caretaker government drawn largely from Ben Ali’s former party. Tunisians rightly structured their political transition so that they would draft a new constitution for the country first and elect a regular government second. The elections they held in October seated the assembly to compose the national charter; they were notable for their high turnout and the paucity of shenanigans in polling places. While the constitutional delegates convene, the president of the country is Moncef Marzouki, a lion of the independent Arab human rights movement who spent long years in Ben Ali’s prisons.

There is domestic conflict, of course, stemming partly from the anxiety of secular Tunisians that the Islamist Ennahda party, which performed the best in the October elections, will prove hostile to pluralism and women’s rights. The greater challenge will be economic. The neglected south, where Mohamed Bouazizi was born and died, is particularly restive amid the slow pace of efforts to redress regional inequalities in education, housing, health care and other basic services. Countrywide, the new government needs to find ways of closing the employment gap: In 2010, there were 30,000 new jobs available for 60,000 job market entrants with post-secondary education. But, overall, Tunisia seems to be headed in the right direction.

In Egypt, as well, the fate of the uprising will be tied to the fortunes of the everyday people — particularly youth, but also older age groups — who overthrew the old regime. Following the demise of Mubarak’s presidency, the country has been consumed with rhetorical spats among liberal, nationalist and Islamist politicians as well as pitched battles in the streets between pro-democracy protesters and the army. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the moniker of the junta that has ruled Egypt since February 2011, has been a clumsy steward at best of the political transition. Many Egyptians question its intentions, and with good reason: The generals have designed an opaque process whose primary purpose is to protect the military’s budgetary and other prerogatives from future civilian leaders. In Egypt, parliamentary elections came first, meaning that the Muslim Brothers and other parties who won will effectively negotiate the terms of the new constitution with the army.

The bright spot in the Egyptian picture is the persistence of bottom-up struggle, whether the recurrent “million-person” marches in Tahrir Square, the courageous fights with soldiers and police, or the spontaneous strikes and sit-ins that proliferate in workplaces and neighborhoods. The junta’s spokesmen and scolds in the press have striven to demonize the last actions in particular as counter-revolutionary, assertions of “special interests” that place parochial wants above the needs of Egypt as a whole. This style of argumentation is redolent of the Mubarak era. In Egypt and across the Arab world, the “ultra-nationalist state” has always conjured a chimerical nation that is somehow not the sum of its citizens. There have been setbacks aplenty, but it is encouraging that working-class Egyptians have stayed so engaged in bettering the condition of themselves and their families. Their small-scale activism can only make national politics more genuinely democratic.

America as Bystander

Washington has been a bystander, for the most part, as these momentous events unfold. Contrary to its preferred self-image, the Obama administration did not support the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt in any meaningful fashion. In Egypt, the administration endorsed the attempted handover of the presidency from Mubarak to Omar Suleiman, the infamous intelligence chief to whom the Bush administration outsourced torture. When the crowds in Tahrir shoved Suleiman off the national stage, the White House adopted a friendlier tone toward democracy on the Nile, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got a chilly reception when she toured the iconic Cairo plaza in mid-March. Egyptians know that the real US ally in Cairo is the army. The army’s adherence to US strategic goals, like the sanctity of the Camp David accord and the security of the Suez Canal for the US Navy, will keep the Pentagon aid dollars coming.

Those who would congratulate the Obama administration for welcoming the Arab uprisings are better advised, in fact, to contemplate Iraq. There, both before and after the withdrawal of US troops, the government of Nouri al-Maliki has steadily gathered power in its own hands, rebuffing calls for dialogue and hurling charges of sedition at political opponents. “Democracy” in Iraq has disturbing characteristics of the old “ultra-nationalist state.” Maliki deploys his US-trained security services for political ends, and his ruling coalition is built in no small part upon sectarian score settling. The difference is that the US invasion and occupation so fragmented Iraq that Maliki has not been able to reassemble the former central authority of Baghdad. With car bombs hitting its cities almost daily, Iraq represents a failed liberal experiment to which despots in Bahrain and Syria can point and a disheartening counter-narrative to the promise of Egypt and, in particular, Tunisia.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the dispiriting old patterns in the Arab world will not reestablish themselves. The Syrian regime and the Bahraini royal family have long since mastered the techniques of the “ultra-nationalist state” and now are updating them for the Internet. The rampant killing in Syria brings wrong-headed calls for — so far, unlikely — foreign intervention. In Libya there are echoes of post-Saddam Iraq. The question of Palestine is unresolved. The loose talk of war with Iran looms ominously over the region.

But, thanks to Tunisians, Egyptians and millions of other Arabs who risked life and limb for dignity and human decency, the new decade in the Arab world does not have the feel of a “dismal age.” The people wanted the fall of their regimes; they managed to dispel the despair that sustained the regimes. One year after Tahrir Square’s triumphal 18 days, this note of hope resounds through the horror.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "A Year After Tahrir," Middle East Report Online, January 30, 2012.

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